2024 marks the centenary of the legendary cellist János Starker. Steven Isserlis shares his memories of Starker, in this tribute from the April 2014 issue of The Strad

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Photo: Tom Miller

Cellist Steven Isserlis

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János Starker was one of the unique, irreplaceable characters in the music world. Everything about him was special: his wonderful artistry, allied with his complete control of the cello; his invaluably analytical teaching; the warmth of his personality; and his glorious sense of humour, so dry that it would make a desert look like a waterfall. There was nobody like him.

Musically, he was a breath of fresh air in an increasingly hysterical, adrenalin-addicted culture. He played exactly as he felt, with complete integrity — no histrionics, no exaggeration; just noble, aristocratic craft.

I can picture him so clearly, lips twitching with amusement, holding forth as we tucked into room service in a hotel room in San Diego, to which we’d had to retreat after he’d discovered, much to his disgust, that smoking wasn’t allowed in the hotel restaurant. (He is the only person whom I’ve ever forgiven for smoking near me! One couldn’t begrudge it to him — smoking was so much part of his personality.)

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Photo: courtesy Indiana University Jacobs School of Music

Then I remember him celebrating with a whisky at Abbey Road studios after completing a recording of the Elgar and Walton concertos with the Philharmonia and Leonard Slatkin, produced by Andrew Keener. (I was his attendant groupie on that occasion.) And mostly I remember late-night story and joke sessions (lubricated, of course, with whisky) with him at Ralph Kirshbaum’s cello festivals, and at the Piatigorsky seminar in Los Angeles when he, Lluís Claret and I were teaching there.

Time spent with him was time enjoyed and savoured; his warmth enveloped his friends even as he tried in vain to portray himself as a hardened cynic. (He didn’t fool anybody!) His legion of friends, students and fans will all miss him horribly.

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